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The Independent Culture
THE CANTOR stands at the lectern in a fashionable Jerusalem synagogue. He is clean-shaven, stately, and, when he sings, sounds as if he's auditioning for lead tenor in Fiddler on the Roof. He wears a long black robe, a black- and-white-striped prayer shawl and a silk biretta that could have belonged to a Renaissance bishop.

With the nasal trills of his trade, he launches into a cheery Sabbath hymn. Three congregation worthies in prayer shawls and skullcaps proudly echo each verse. They've hired a star and he's doing the business.

Suddenly the cantor coughs and splutters. He can't go on. The worthies throw up their hands in despair. Then the cantor whips out a tube of mints, pops one in his mouth and picks up where he left off. The worthies beam with relief. And, in the background, a camera rolls ...

These men are making a commercial for peppermints; tomorrow they will make another for a brand of soft drinks. But they're not actors - the cantor is a cantor, the three worthies are pious Jews, and they are recruits to the first ultra-Orthodox, strictly kosher modelling agency.

Founded by Amos Ben-Naeh, a yeshiva seminarist turned adman, the Original Idea agency provides "Ortho-models" for the burgeoning religious advertising market in Israel - as well as secular consumers at home and abroad. "There is a great, international potential," he says, "not just among the Orthodox public. It's a great gimmick for the gentiles. It'll shock them."

Until recently, most ads in the religious media stuck to the printed word. "I've made a revolution," Ben-Naeh claims. "When I suggested using people, no one agreed. For two years I trekked around yeshivas, persuading rabbis to put in writing how good it would be if religious men were seen on television, on posters, in newspapers."

The breakthrough came when he persuaded a Jerusalem-based rabbi to advertise cellular phones on the front page of a religious newspaper. When he complained that he'd only earnt $200, Ben-Naeh told him he'd have to appear in the lay press too if he wanted to hit the big time. The rabbi is reviewing his options.

Although he's performed at synagogues in Canada and Germany, the peppermint cantor, Nathan Herstik, says he can't keep his wife and three children on singing alone. Until he was discovered by Ben-Naeh, he paid the rent by supervising kitchens in kosher restaurants.

Now Herstik hopes to earn as much as $2,000 a session from the agency. "I make modest commercials," he insists. "A little funny, a little nice, but no swimsuits."

One of the three worthies, Joshua Jacobovits, used to teach in a yeshiva. His rate for a day's shoot is $1,000. His greatest hit was a supermarket ad in which his trim ginger beard was smeared in chocolate pudding. The local rabbi endorsed his new profession, on condition that he didn't advertise non-kosher food or pose with a woman.

So far, Ben-Naeh has not photographed religious women, though he has a list of candidates. Softly, softly, he's been canvassing sacred sentiment. This month Dov Lior, an eminent rabbinical jurist, gave his seal of approval: women may appear in stills and TV ads, even in fashion shows.

But Naomi Campbell needn't lose any sleep. The religious competition will parade in ankle-length skirts, high necks and show no elbows. And each shot, Ben-Naeh promises, will be vetted by a rabbi's wife.